Making it through the stormSustainable urbanisation is essential to protect cities against future natural disasters
The recent disasters caused by destructive earthquakes and extreme rainfalls in South Asia’s cities should force everyone to seriously reflect on ways of making the urban area more secure. The 2015 Gorkha earthquake and its aftershocks hit Nepal’s capital, emerging towns and rural homes hard. Later in November, heavy rains in Chennai led to massive flooding. Both, the earthquakes and the flooding brought enormous damages and devastation. Such catastrophes are neither new nor unique to South Asia. Earlier disasters have repeatedly led to major devastations: The floods in Kashmir and Mid-Western Nepal in 2014 and 2010 in Pakistan, the embankment breach in Koshi in 2008, high water in Bihar in 2007 and in Mumbai in 2005, and so on.
These disasters significantly affected local economies, livelihoods, food and drinking water supplies, access to health care, electricity, communication and transportation services. Limitations of state agencies as well as ‘hard’ interventions, such as embankments for flood prevention became evident. Particularly, the impacts on the poor and marginalised were direct and severe. This is unsurprising as inequalities in wealth and access to basic services in South Asia disproportionately create and distribute hazard risks. As a result frequent floods, seismic and other disasters lead to loss and damages that lower development gains.
The disaster in Chennai in 2015 was caused by three factors, which worked simultaneously. First, too much water came down too quickly but did not find outlets to escape. On November 15th, the city received 370 mm of rain in 24 hours, then 490 mm on November 29th. Second, unplanned urbanisation had significantly lowered the capacity of the buffering in the outlaying areas. Wetlands, ponds and open spaces, which could serve as natural flood cushions, were arbitrarily encroached. The city’s drainage systems did not have enough capacity to let the water pass and the soil sealing had made the water infiltration impossible. Third, urban institutions were not prepared to deal with the extreme event. This last point is a common trait in South Asia where the link between disaster and development is poorly considered.
Development and disaster
The increasingly frequent occurrence of extreme weather events raises a fundamental question: Are they triggered by climate change? Given the limitations of climate modeling and lack of sufficient data at different times and spatial scales, it is not possible to attribute a single extreme weather event directly to climate change. Climate scientists, however, do agree that climate change has a role in making weather more erratic and extreme events more frequent. The 2013 report by Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change suggests that magnitude and frequency of extreme rainfalls are likely to increase in South Asia. However, with South Asian cities rapidly expanding their economic zones, shopping malls, commercial establishments and settlements, wetlands, water bodies and open spaces are likely to be encroached upon. Risks of flooding and other disasters will intensify.
Extreme rainfalls have also caused massive damages in Nepal. On September 24th 1981, the 24-hour rainfall recorded by a station in Godavari, Kathmandu was 169 mm. Almost all the rivers flowing through the Valley were flooded, and the upland and lower reaches of the Nakhhu River, south of the Valley, were seriously hit. Twelve years later in 1993, the Valley again received very high rainfall but had devastating impacts on Nepal’s central hills and central Tarai, killing more than a thousand people. Sections of Prithvi and Tribhuvan highways, the bridges and culverts on them, the Kulekhani hydropower system, and the Bagmati barrage were also severely damaged.
What do these events tell us about the urban development and disaster risk mitigation? For one, the growth of settlements in Kathmandu valley and other flood plains has ignored the fact that the monsoon water has to be drained out. During the monsoon, low-lying sections of the Kathmandu valley get regularly flooded and its roads water-logged. What would happen to the Valley if a weather system had to dump 500 mm of rainfall in 24 hours? The occurrence of such an event is not unlikely. In 1993, Tistung in Makawanpur District recorded 540 mm of rainfall in 24 hours. In 2014, a station in Kailali District in western Nepal recorded 492 mm rainfall in just nine hours. If such an event were to occur, Kathmandu valley’s densely populated areas, especially along riverbanks and lowlands, will be particularly vulnerable. Physical infrastructures and service delivery systems will be damaged while stagnant water will exacerbate health risk. It is likely that low-income households, whose settlements are close to the waterways of Bagmati and its tributaries, will be hit.
The broad lessons from the Chennai flooding and earthquakes in Nepal are similar. Failure was systemic and there was little disaster preparedness. In both instances, the hazards intersected with fragile systems making the impacts severe: poor housing stock in Nepal and utter lack of proper drainage systems in Chennai. Thus, when hazard exposure thresholds—earthquake magnitude and extreme rainfall—exceeded normal levels, failure cascaded through the systems. The consequences on people and systems were devastating because local institutions and those who were responsible for the disaster management were unprepared. Unfortunately, the lessons are not systematically learned. Countries and cities are embarking on investments on roads, expressways and other systems without considering how extreme climatic events and other shocks will affect them and turn the hazard into a catastrophe. Such decisions and lack of preparedness will accumulate hazard risks locking South Asians on a pathway to a fatal future.
The lessons from these and other disasters when combined with ideas of an inclusive urban future can help countries build economically, socially and ecologically viable cities. While existing institutional gaps must be plugged, it is worth thinking about the opportunities that urbanisation offers in building an inclusive future, including different socio political and institutional landscapes. The conception of such a future would require us to develop urban areas in ways that nurture space for economic, social, technological, environmental and spatial elements. The density and diversity of organisations, cultures, communities and perspectives in urban regions can create ways to provide quality services and education, new forms of livelihood and generation of new knowledge as a point of entry in designing pathways to an inclusive future.
In Nepal, specifically, this transition must begin by focusing on invigorating universities and independent knowledge generating entities. To that end, the Nepali government must significantly increase its investments in production of knowledge as a pre-requisite for social and economic wellbeing as well as for mitigating disaster risks. If the government continues its apathy towards investing in knowledge, the country’s aim to achieve prosperity and disaster risk reduction will remain an unachievable goal.
Yadav and Dixit are associated with Kathmandu based think tank ISET-Nepal